SunDensity to locate operations, manufacturing in Rochester

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CEO Nish Sonwalkar is pumped about moving SunDensity’s operations and manufacturing to Rochester. The photonics startup won the top prize—$1 million—and was named Company of the Year at the culminating event for Luminate NY’s third cohort.

The virtual Luminate Finals 2020 took place Sept.14 at the Optical Society’s international Frontiers in Optics + Laser Science APS/DLS conference. More than 1,200 people registered for the event. 

SunDensity joins other startups that have participated in the $25 million Luminate NY accelerator program, funded by New York State through the Finger Lakes Forward Upstate Revitalization Initiative. Since its inception, the program has invested $7 million in 30 startups. The companies in the portfolio now share a net worth of $160 million, officials say. Many of these companies conduct some aspect of their business in Rochester.

“It’s a turning point for any company, it’s almost like taking an elephant over the hill,” says Sonwalkar, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, who is currently on leave. “I think we’ve reached the hill and hopefully it will all work out. One of the (key) things you need is funding, and this funding from Luminate gives big confidence to other investors to put money in our company. Many Boston investors are very interested in putting additional money in our company now.”

SunDensity has developed Photonic Smart Coating technology which improves the energy output of solar panels.

SunDensity has developed Photonic Smart Coating technology which improves the energy output of solar panels by 20 percent. It augments the efficiency of opto-electronic devices like solar cells by shaping the spectrum of photons, transforming wasted visible light into infrared light that these devices can use more easily. In the utility industry, PSC increases panel output, enabling solar power producers and glass manufacturers to lower costs.

“Normally for any solar power plant it takes them eight to 10 years to break even because of significant investment,” Sonwalkar says. “We will bring that down by almost five to six years. They are really excited about it. They spend almost $1 billion per gigawatt. We are bringing it down by almost $63 million. So that’s the advantage for the power plant manufacturer, and that’s why they are highly motivated to take our solution in their solar panels.”

SunDensity’s first growth prospect: coating millions of glass panels to supply the photovoltaic panel industry. A power plant requires 3 million solar panels for 1 gigawatt of solar power, Sonwalkar says. SunDensity is in talks with eight glass companies and four solar panel manufacturing companies for its technology.

“They have given us a letter of intent saying if we build, they will buy,” Sonwalkar says. “So I believe the industry is in fact saying ‘I want it yesterday.’ I think our biggest challenge is to manufacture at a very large scale.”

SunDensity plans to use its winnings to fund its scale-up manufacturing process development in Rochester. 

“That is our biggest next step to convince our manufacturing partners, glass companies, that we’ve completely de-risked our process and our coating is scalable to millions of coated glass (panels) per year,” Sonwalkar says.

Rochester plays into SunDensity’s future through its expertise and workforce in photonics as well as its economics. It is also cheaper for SunDensity to set up shop here than in a larger city like Boston.

Nish Sonwalkar

“Rochester is an ideal place for us to set up what we call a pilot coating line, which will convince all of our partners to buy our equipment,” he says. “The core of our technology will sit in Rochester.”

SunDensity expects to capitalize on Rochester’s existing capacity—already built by Kodak, Xerox and other firms. Its customers will buy an intellectual property license, equipment and target material from its partners, in what Sonwalkar calls a turnkey solution. The startup will help implement the technology and provide tech support.

From financial modeling, sales and marketing plans to investor term sheets, Luminate has been instrumental in helping SunDensity progress. The program connected startups with roughly eight investment groups, Sonwalkar says. 

“We know about few other accelerators,” he says. “This was a great experience. I think any accelerator, if they want their companies to be successful, they have to bring lots of investors in to see their companies. I think Luminate has done an excellent job of bringing them in.”

Despite having to switch to a virtual learning environment because of the pandemic, Sonwalkar credits Luminate for its efforts. He advises future applicants to be ready to do the work.

“It is not a walk in the park, but it is well worth the effort,” Sonwalkar says.

In the third cohort, Rochester-based Simulated Inanimate Models was awarded the Outstanding Graduate Award and $400,000. Its technology, SIM ARTS, offers an immersive experience that eliminates patient risk by enabling surgeons to practice complete procedures on lifelike anatomical models in an augmented reality environment. Pittsburgh’s Rubitection is the Distinguished Graduate Award recipient. The company received $300,000 for its Rubitect Assessment System, which provides early bedsore detection and management tools. 

Honorable Achievements and $250,000 in funding each went to two companies: 

  • AkknaTek—a Germany-based company providing a Lens Reviewer, Optical Imaging System that reduces post-operative refractive surprises after cataract surgery, and 
  • Nodetect, a Danish company offering a portable, rapid nanosensor for analyzing biochemicals in the agriculture and farming industries.

The Luminate NY accelerator is now accepting applications for its fourth round through Jan.7, 2021. Participation requirements—given COVID-19—have been adjusted. Teams that can physically locate to Rochester for the six-month program will receive $100,000 in funding at the program’s start in April 2021 while those that aren’t able to be present locally will get $50,000 in funding upon program start and an additional $50,000 to engage resources in the Finger Lakes region during their time in the accelerator, officials say.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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